There’s life in the old dog yet The paradox of fax

Fax – An obsolete technology?

Fax as a means of business communication has been said to be dead for more than a decade. And there are some good reasons for this assessment:

  • For many of us email has become a more convenient and easy way to exchange personal and business information
  • Digital signatures, Public Key Infrastructures (PKI) and protocols such as https allow a secure exchange of information via the internet
  • Web based applications provide online interfaces for keying in data which previously had to be mailed or faxed based on paper forms
  • Methodologies and standards have evolved for exchanging structured information such as invoices or orders via a secure file exchange between businesses instead of sending them as letters, facsimiles, or email attachments

Given these technology innovations it is amazing how much fax is still used for business communications by small and medium sized companies as well as the largest multinational enterprises. Some examples taken from a study which INTERCOPE recently conducted among its customers illustrate this:

  • An airline transmits information related to air traffic via fax including weather charts for the pilots, airplane loading calculations and diagrams for balancing the undercarriage weights for the airplanes. In addition fax has become the backbone of many back-office operations. In total 63,500 fax messages are processed each month by this company.
  • A multinational chemical and pharmaceutical company uses fax services integrated with a large SAP infrastructure to send and receive 164,000 messages each month across most business areas served by the SAP applications.
  • A large financial service provider processes 418,000 fax messages monthly solely in their SWIFT messaging infrastructure complementing international financial messages sent and received through the SWIFT network.
  • An insurance group processes 468,000 fax messages each month through integration with their email infrastructure, large mainframe batch processes and SAP applications.
  • A government agency processes 1,440,000 fax messages monthly relating to disability claims processes handled through one of the largest content management systems in the world.

Fax is often perceived as an obsolete, out of date technology which may still be used by some older people in small business who do not know better, but as irrelevant for the mainstream of business information which is expected to be handled by modern web based technologies, structured data exchange, and email. As the above examples indicate the reality is actually quite different and fax still plays an important role in the exchange of structured, semi-structured and unstructured information even by the largest and most technology-aware multinational enterprises.

In the subsequent parts of this article we will try to shine some light onto this paradox, discuss in more detail where and why fax is still seen as an indispensable method for the exchange of business information and what the future of this technology might be.